Student project seeks to help boost struggling economy with adventure tourism
When travelers look for destinations offering outdoor adventure, Albania is not likely to be at the top of their lists. Albania Rafting Group, Albania’s oldest tourism and sport organization, is working to change this, and a team of WPI students went along for the ride.
The students, chemical engineering major Carlos Chong, mathematical sciences major Cassidy Litch, mechanical engineering major Benjamin Morton, and mechanical engineering major Emma Ryan, completed their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP)—a project that requires teams to delve into a problem that matters to real people—at WPI’s project center in Tirana, Albania. While their project focus—helping their sponsor organization, Albania Rafting Group, research and plan the country’s first adventure park—sounds like a lot of fun, its goal was serious: to help boost the nation’s struggling economy through tourism.
Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has spent the past two decades transitioning from an isolated Communist economy to one of a free market. Despite government and private investment, economic opportunities are still limited, particularly in rural areas, where high levels of unemployment have led many young people to seek work elsewhere.
“The biggest problem Albania is facing right now is emigration,” says Morton. “People are leaving. Between the ages of 18 and 20, they are packing their bags and going to Germany, to the United States.”
Albania Rafting Group hopes to help keep young Albanians in the country by using tourism to bring jobs and revenue to rural areas. The organization’s seasonal activities, including white water rafting and canyon exploring, already attract about 5,000 tourists a year, and they plan to expand upon this success by opening a year-round adventure center. The new center will also be eco-sustainable, promoting environmentally friendly activities in a natural setting that includes the Osumi Canyon, a 16-mile-long river gorge featuring stunning waterfalls and moderate rapids.
Additionally, the organization’s plans will use the center’s location on a former military base for inspiration by preserving old buildings and enabling visitors to take part in activities reminiscent of those used in military training.
Blerina Ago, vice president of Albania Rafting Group, explains that she reached out to WPI to help this vision come to life because she was seeking new skill sets as well as informed perspectives.
“This was excellent timing because we have initiated a very ambitious project … and we needed a lot of support, help, and expertise in different fields,” says Ago. "The first thing the students brought to our project was their experience, because they have explored a lot of these adventure parks in America. We do not have them here in Albania."
The students arrived in Albania armed with research they had conducted in their IQP preparatory course on adventure parks around the world. In order to find the right fit for their sponsor organization, they surveyed opinions on ideal activities from the park’s target market: young people from Albania and other countries. They were surprised to uncover a significant disparity between preferences expressed by Albanians and non-Albanians.
“People within the region just don’t know what an adventure park is,” says Morton. “When you ask them, ‘What activities would you like to see?’ they don’t even know where to begin. We got examples like ‘hiking,’ and that’s not exactly something we would think of that would go in an adventure or amusement park.”
In the end, the students selected five new activities designed to appeal to a broad range of participants: zip lining, hiking, rock climbing, a ropes course, and an obstacle course. They also planned out individual elements and identified potential locations, safety measures, and construction companies that could build the obstacle and ropes courses.
Morton notes that researching these adventure activities was definitely “a blast,” but says that the most compelling aspect of the project was its potential to make a real impact.
“It felt much more motivating to work on a project they could actually use someday to increase tourism, which is a real problem in Albania,” says Morton. “I felt much more passionate about my work ... like I was really making a difference.”
Teammate Emma Ryan agrees, and says she also believes that seeing this real-world connection has helped her become a better engineer.
“As an engineer it can be too easy to focus entirely on the problem in front of you and forget how what you’re designing or building can impact human lives,” says Ryan. "To see that this was not just something that was for fun in the way we're used to thinking of it, but to see it as more of an opportunity for job creation or economic growth was interesting."
According to Ago, the students can be assured that their hard work will in fact make an impact, as she and her colleagues plan to use many of the students’ findings going forward.
“The students listened to all our needs, and our team was really surprised to receive at the end of their work a detailed report about the adventure park," says Ago. "The important element we really appreciated was the work they did in determining and analyzing preferences for adventure activities among millennials.”
"All the information provided in the report is very useful," she says. "We will use it for fundraising for the adventure park and in the phase of implementation of the project."
Albania Rafting Group hopes to begin making some of the expanded activities available to local students later this year while continuing to develop the park. Additional future plans include a training center for adventure tourism guides and programs promoting cultural and environmental awareness, all of which Ago believes would be prime topics for WPI student projects.
“We have already expressed our interest in working with WPI on renewable energy or water management systems in the center,” says Ago. “We believe that the professional expertise of WPI students would be an added value to all our work on the Albanian Adventure Resort.”